If you’re like many dog owners, you’ve witnessed the terror that summer storms can strike in your pet. “Thunder phobia” most commonly develops in dogs between ages two and four, according to animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell. This fear can manifest as a variety of challenging behaviors—hiding, whining, scratching, slobbering, or tearing down door frames in a state of panic—and it can get worse with age.
What’s important to remember is that dogs suffering from thunderstorm fear are not misbehaving, says animal behaviorist Lindsay Wood of the Boulder Valley Humane Society. They’re displaying symptoms of anxiety.
Vets and animal specialists aren’t certain exactly what part of a storm causes dogs the most discomfort – the noise, the flashing lights, or something else entirely. Some dogs may be worriers in general and panic at any change, while others may be overly sensitive to sound, according to CJ Bentley of the Michigan Humane Society. Dogs also possess special sensitivities that make storms even more terrifying: dogs can sense the change in air pressure, and may hear low-frequency rumblings that humans can’t detect. Some vets also believe dogs experience shocks from the buildup of static electricity that accompanies thunderstorms.
To help your dog cope with stormy weather, Cynthia Bolte , who works on the animal behavior team at Purina, offers the following tips:
- If there are windows in the room, close the blinds or curtains, or cover the windows so the dog can’t see outside.
- Provide a safe indoor area, like a crate. A plastic crate is preferable, but if you have a wire crate, you can cover it with a sheet to create the feeling of a haven. Leave the door open so the dog does not feel trapped.
- Play calming music to drown out the thunder claps.
- Stay with the dog.
- Try to distract your dog with treats and familiar games.
- If your dog seems most upset by sound, you can try desensitization. Download thunderstorm sounds and practice by playing them quietly to your dog, and give the dog treats or play a fun game with him while the sound is on. Gradually, over weeks, increase the volume. Stop the play or treats when the sounds are turned off. The goal is to help your dog relate the sound of thunderstorms with happy times.
- Use calming massage to reassure the dog.
There are a few products that might help your dog relax as well.
Tight jackets such as the Thundershirt provide a sensation of pressure, which can alleviate pets’ anxiety. (Swaddling a baby operates on the same principle.) You can also make a DIY version by buying a small T-shirt and putting the dog’s front legs through the armholes of the shirt. The shirt should fit snugly around your dog’s torso.
Visual filters such as the Thundercap reduce visual stimulation and can be soothing to dogs.
In severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend a low dose of an anti-anxiety medication.
Your veterinarian is the best person to talk to when it comes to helping your dog cope with storms. He or she will be best equipped to pinpoint exactly which stimulus is troubling your pet.
Most importantly, practice positive reinforcement with your dog. Do not scold or punish her for her displays of anxiety, but remember that her behavior is not about disobedience, but about high levels of fear. And that old saw about not comforting your dog because it “reinforces” the fear? Not true at all. Do anything you can to help your dog feel better; teaching her new, pleasant associations is the best way to reduce fearful behavior.
We hope these tips help you and your dog weather the season’s storms.